Sorry, but police unions are just as troubling as other public-sector unions

By Steven Greenhut
July 9, 2018

Sacramento

During a speech to a conservative group about the state’s pension crisis several years ago, one member of the audience was upset that I focused so much attention on police and firefighter unions. He thought I should basically give those groups a pass, to which I replied that perhaps we should skip talking about pension issues altogether then, given that public-safety groups are the source of the bulk of the state’s pension-funding problem. In my view, it’s ridiculous to be upset at a problem caused by all public-sector unions, but only target those unions we don’t like.

This attitude is strangely prevalent among some conservatives. They are happy when I point to the ways the California Teachers Association and SEIU use union dues for political purposes, back rules that protect bad employees and resist reasonable reforms. Because of their overall support for police officers, however, these conservatives often don’t like to hear the truth about those unions, even though such unions operate in the same heavy-handed and undemocratic way as other public unions.

But I was surprised – shocked, actually – to read similar sentiments on the California Policy Center website, given CPC’s pioneering work unraveling the problems with public-sector unionization. In a recent column, the center’s Ed Ring complained about the solidarity of opposition among the state’s public-sector unions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which freed government employees from being forced to pay dues to such unions.

That’s right on point, but then Ring made this observation: “While we’re on the topic of solidarity, why on Earth would PORAC (the Peace Officers’ Research Association of California) want to declare solidarity with the teachers’ union? There are legitimate reasons to criticize police unions, and police officers could probably operate just fine with civil service protection combined with the clout wielded by voluntary associations that didn’t engage in collective bargaining. But police unions did not destroy the effectiveness of law enforcement. They’re actually doing a pretty good job. The teachers’ union, on the other hand, has nearly destroyed public education.”

Like all unions, the police unions do a “pretty good job” for their members, if you define a “pretty good job” as securing an unsustainable level of pay and benefits for their members – and protecting virtually all of them from accountability. The problem is these unions don’t do a good job for the public, which pays their bills, suffers from the crowding out of public services and must live with the way officers perform their jobs.

The nature of public unions is exactly the same, whether we’re talking about teachers, cops, firefighters, groundskeepers or prison guards. The CTA protects incompetent teachers and lets them receive full pay as they twiddle their thumbs in “rubber rooms,” while police unions assure that overly aggressive cops are back patrolling the streets unless they are convicted of a crime. The latter arguably is worse. That certainly has undermined the concept of community policing, as any number of highly publicized police shootings and dubious use-of-force instances illustrate.

The Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, the California Supreme Court’s 2006 secrecy-enabling Copley decision and all those privacy laws and special protections that police unions have secured assure that the desires of the union members – not the public, which they are paid to protect and serve – are pre-eminent. Ring should have stuck to the right point: that police are best served with civil-service protections and voluntary associations.

Police unions have made it impossible for police chiefs to reform their departments, get rid of the small number of thugs within their midst, root out police corruption and privatize services. The 2014 Vergara decision revealed that a small percentage of unfit teachers miseducate large numbers of California students, causing a lifetime of harm.

Likewise, a small number of problem officers – often protected from firing because of those union-secured protections – cause a large number of recurring problems for police departments and cause permanent harm to some citizens. “It has become a truism among police chiefs that 10 percent of their officers cause 90 percent of the problems,” according to a report from the federal National Institute of Justice. “Investigative journalists have documented departments in which as few as 2 percent of all officers are responsible for 50 percent of all citizen complaints.”

Union protections are the source of many taxpayer-funded liability payouts. But unions also dominate police departments’ training procedures, and tend to promote militarization and other policies that are designed to protect the officer at all costs, with the public being an afterthought at best.

Here’s Ring again: “Public safety professionals realize the consequences of leftist policies. Every day they patrol and protect communities ravaged by welfare programs that have destroyed work ethics and dismantled nuclear families. Every day they cope with fallout from gang conflict and drug abuse. … Every day they have to mitigate these ongoing and escalating problems while looking over their shoulder to see if they’ve ‘profiled’ someone or committed some similar phony transgression. Every day they have to endure undeserved hostility, funded and fomented by anti-American leftist oligarchs, because of the isolated actions of a vanishingly few bad apples.”

It’s hard to unravel all those overheated clichés, but the police-union groups that Ring defends have had a far greater role in destroying the public-spirited nature of California policing than anti-American leftists. PORAC, for instance, runs a legal-insurance fund that pays the legal bills for police accused of crimes. And it’s not unnamed oligarchs who are behind California’s pension crisis or budget woes.

Police, by the way, aren’t the only employees who have to deal with societal breakdown. So do teachers, nurses and people in the private sector. Regarding all those problems that Ring deplores, note that the state’s police unions are supporters of many of the state’s most liberal politicians. Here are PORAC’s endorsements from the June primary, in which it backed Antonio Villaraigosa for governor.

Ring is right that police unions don’t embrace all the wacky national left-wing political action nonsense supported by other unions. But police unions often back gun control and always back more public spending. They are among the state’s most notorious defenders of government secrecy and rarely hesitate flexing their political muscle to bring local governments to heel.

One now-defunct law firm that had represented dozens of the state’s police unions was proud of its “playbook” that detailed the way police unions can intimidate city councils, including work slowdowns and other dubious policies.  This is corrosive of public service. So is the way that police organizations fought bitterly against reforms to the state’s asset-forfeiture laws, which allow police agencies to take a person’s property – even if that person has never been convicted or even accused of committing a crime.

California Policy Center has led the fight against excessive public pensions, but police unions were a main cause of the state’s pension crisis. Senate Bill 400 in 1999 was passed on behalf of the California Highway Patrol. It created a 50-percent retroactive pension increase for officers – a formula that subsequently spread across the state and led to the current pension mess. We all appreciate the work of police officers, just as we appreciate the work of teachers, but we shouldn’t let emotionalism get in the way of our analysis of the noxious effect of their unions.

Steven Greenhut is contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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